More tools to use, a more active off-season looms for Pistons this time around

Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond are the only Pistons on multiyear contracts aside from the 5 players still on rookie deals
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

AUBURN HILLS – Ed Stefanski didn’t have much time to develop his first off-season’s action plan in charge of the Pistons front office, but he didn’t have a whole lot of latitude in devising that plan, anyway.

With no first-round draft pick, no cap space, the luxury tax looming if full use of cap exceptions was made and most returning players on multiyear contracts – precisely the kind that become more restrictive in attracting potential trade partners – there was zero chance Stefanski would have an especially active first off-season with the Pistons.

Next summer will look a whole lot different – the Pistons are projected to have enough cap space to pursue a maximum free agent, if they choose, and certainly enough to add multiple starters – but the 2019 action plan contains more possibilities than ’18’s for Stefanski. If the shackles haven’t been removed, they’ve at least been loosened.

The Pistons can use the full mid-level ($9.25 million) and biannual ($3.6 million) exceptions in free agency and still stay below the luxury tax. Stefanski has his first- (No. 15) and second-round (No. 45) picks at hand. The only multiyear contracts remaining on the books belong to their two stars – Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond – and those still on rookie contracts: Luke Kennard, Thon Maker, Bruce Brown, Khyri Thomas and Svi Mykhailiuk.

Both the mid-level and biannual amounts can be broken up over more than one player, though they can’t be co-mingled. If the Pistons spend $6 million of the mid-level on a player, that doesn’t mean they can take the remaining $3.25 million and combine it with the $3.6 biannual to get another player for $6.85 million. It means they could get a $3.25 million player and another for $3.6 million.

What could they expect to get for those amounts? If the Pistons drop all of the $9.25 million on one player, they’re going to expect to get someone who can play starter’s minutes – high 20s, low 30s.

From last year’s free-agent class, players who signed for the mid-level or its equivalent for teams under the cap include:

  • Kyle Anderson with Memphis – Before getting hurt, Anderson started and averaged 30 minutes a game for the Grizzlies. Anderson signed a full four-year MLE deal for $37 million.

  • Jerami Grant with Oklahoma City – Grant signed a three-year deal for $27 million, started and played 33 minutes a game for the Thunder.

  • Fred VanVleet with Toronto – VanVleet, point guard for Dwane Casey’s second unit in 2017-18 for the Raptors, hit free agency after just two seasons because he went undrafted. As a restricted free agent, he got a two-year deal for $18.1 million. Though he missed 18 games due to injury and remained mostly an off-the-bench player – VanVleet wound up starting 28 games – he played starter’s minutes (27.5 a game) and often was on the floor to end games alongside starter Kyle Lowry.

  • Julius Randle with New Orleans – Randle signed for less than the full MLE (two years, $17.7 million), became a part-time starter (49 games) and put up big numbers (21.4 points, 8.7 rebounds) while playing 31 minutes a game.

  • Joe Harris with Brooklyn – Harris also signed for slightly below the full MLE (two years, $16 million) and became a full-time starter (30 minutes a game) who led the NBA in 3-point shooting (.474) while averaging 13.7 points for a playoff team.

That quality of player would slot in alongside Luke Kennard and Reggie Jackson, behind Griffin and Drummond, in the pecking order for a Pistons team that goes into the off-season needing a backup point guard and a starting-quality wing foremost with a tertiary need for a backup big man for Drummond.

The big man probably gets filled with a player on a veteran minimum deal or something slightly north of that. Among the big men who signed one-year minimum deals last summer – and will be free agents again this year – are ex-Pistons Amir Johnson and Greg Monroe, JaVale McGee, Jahlil Okafor and Zaza Pachulia. Ed Davis and Richaun Holmes are other pending free agents, though they’ll likely command more than the minimum.

What if the Pistons were to offer roughly two-thirds – about $6 million – of their MLE in order to have something roughly akin to two biannual exceptions in order to satisfy their three primary needs?

For players who signed for around $6 million last summer, here’s the quality the Pistons could expect to land:

  • Montrezl Harrell with the Los Angeles Clippers – Harrell came off of the bench, though he was his team’s best big man, and averaged 16.6 points and 6.5 rebounds in 26 minutes a game after taking a two-year, $12 million deal.

  • Marco Belinelli with San Antonio – Belinelli, long one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooters, took the same two-year, $12 million deal to go to the Spurs and averaged 10.5 points in 23 minutes a game.

  • Wayne Ellington with Miami – Ellington took a one-year deal for $6.3 million to stay with the Heat, then wound up falling out of the rotation by mid-season and was traded – and subsequently bought out by – Phoenix in a deal Miami made to reduce its luxury-tax liability. Ellington signed with the Pistons and averaged 12 points in 27 minutes a game as a starter.

What about players from last year’s free-agent class who signed for the biannual or its equivalent?

Rodney Hood, Michael Beasley, James Ennis, Pat Connaughton, Treveon Graham, Elfrid Payton and Derrick Jones are all players who signed for the biannual exception or slightly less. All played significant roles for their teams.

Bottom line, the Pistons have enough ammunition in their chamber this off-season to augment a roster that Casey coached to a 41-41 record and the playoffs. They won’t be setting the tone of free agency, but unlike last summer they won’t be relegated only to the bargain bin, either.

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